Florida lawmakers know an election year is no time to agitate voters — or at least agitate them to the degree they still would be upset in November.
That is why the Florida Legislature, which starts its annual session Tuesday, is expected to be relatively tame — with one major exception.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford both are intent on adopting pension reform, which will anger state workers. But the task, which sadly eluded lawmakers last year, needs to be done to protect taxpayers, the state’s finances and future retirees.
Florida’s plan is funded at 86 percent, a reasonably healthy level. But sooner or later promising to pay a defined lifetime retirement benefit will get the state in trouble, as it has in many other states and municipalities, with bankrupt Detroit being a prime example. Or consider Illinois, which ran up a pension bill equal to 241 percent of its revenue.
Moreover, a key reason the Florida Retirement System is in decent shape is that the Legislature allocates $500 million to it each year.
That is money that would otherwise go to education, transportation, environmental protection, family services and a host of other state needs.
The state should move to a defined contribution plan such as those used in the private sector, where the employer matches to a certain level the employee’s retirement contribution and the money is invested. This 401(k)-type plan gives workers control of their retirement investments and enables them to leave for another job without penalty. It is reassuring that Weatherford and Gaetz stress that any changes would affect only new state workers, not retirees or current state employees.
It would take many years to complete the transition, but the reform would treat workers fairly while defusing a financial time bomb.
Lawmakers should support the reform effort.
Another worthy priority for Gaetz and Weatherford, who appear in harmony on most issues, is to bolster Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides private school vouchers to children from poor families.
Under the program, companies receive a tax credit by contributing to scholarship funds so state dollars are not directly used for private schools.
But the arrangement enables disadvantaged families to choose the school that works best for their child. It has proved popular and effective, serving about 60,000 students. An estimated 30,000 children on are on a waiting list.
Raising the tax credit cap for corporations, as Weatherford and Gaetz recommend, would generate more funds for the program and more education options for Florida families.
Supporting school choice is a smart policy that by no means diminishes the Legislature’s responsibility to adequately fund public schools, which will remain the first choice of most families.
It is unfortunate that — once again — environmental issues don’t seem to be a priority this session, though there are some proposals to better protect springs. Word is lawmakers will give more focus to them next year.
But lawmakers need to recognize protecting our natural riches is as important to ensuring the state’s long-term appeal as adopting business-friendly tax cuts, such as the $100 million cut on the sales tax on business rents proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Meanwhile, the issue of gambling refuses to die, and it will again be discussed this session.
The Senate, which like the House is controlled by Republicans, has filed a legislative package that would expand gambling in the state, allowing the creation of two $2 billion resort casinos in South Florida and permit slot machines at dog and horse tracks in Florida. Another piece would put the expansion question into voters’ hands, but the amendment would not prevent the two casinos and slots at the tracks, according to reports.
Florida has far too much gambling as it is, and if we had our way it would be completely eliminated. It is bad public policy to encourage people, some weak and vulnerable, to waste their money hoping for an easy score.
In reality, gambling is a hidden tax.
As Gaetz told us last week, the state shouldn’t be “addicted” to gambling revenue.
And we hope he and Weatherford signal their colleagues they will not allow the expansion of gambling in any form.
Of course, the legislative leaders are right when they say Scott holds most of the cards because he will oversee the negotiating of a new gaming compact with the Seminole Indians.
The state’s five-year, $1 billion deal with the tribe, signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, expires in 2015. Unfortunately, given federal law, Seminole gambling is here to stay.
But with a new agreement the state could continue to limit Las Vegas-style card games and slots to the Seminole’s casinos, including the facility in Tampa, while compensating the state for such exclusivity. Promoting gambling elsewhere would victimize citizens and damage the state’s image as a family-friendly destination.
That’s not an achievement lawmakers should want to take to Election Day.
This year’s legislative agenda, although modest, has the potential to put the state’s pension system on the right path and open educational opportunities to needy students.
Lawmakers can serve the state by passing those measures, while resisting calls to gamble with the state’s future.